We cannot know anything about God or His ways unless He reveals Himself to us (Rom 1:19 and Matt. 11:27). However, in His love and grace, and in order to bring about His good purposes, He has chosen to do this. God’s revelation of Himself through what we see around us, and through conscience, is known as General Revelation. God’s revelation of Himself through the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ is known as Special Revelation.
Psalm 19 reads,
No one can look up at the stars at night and be ignorant of God’s greatness and wisdom. Isaac Newton was right in declaring, “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”1 Even the most remote tribes, in places like Africa and South America, are known to have been endowed with this sense of God.2 From the beginning, man has been able to behold the Creator in His creation. The wonder of the growth of plant to seed; the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly; the thrill of sunrise, ‘from faint rosy flush to majestic orb’; the skill of birds in building their nests; the beauty of music; the elegance and power of mathematics; the perceptiveness of language. All these things, for those willing to hear, cry out that there is a God.
Moreover, modern science, rather than diminishing this message, unquestionably reinforces it. The intellectual giant Antony Flew was, for many years, one of the world’s leading atheists. However, in his later years, when confronted with the indescribable complexity of the so called ‘simple cell’, he concluded that intelligence must have been involved in life’s origin. Moreover, the existence of the laws of nature, the precise fine tuning of those laws to enable life to exist, and the enormous amounts of information encoded in DNA pointed unequivocally, he believed, to the existence of a creator God.3
General Revelation is also given through God’s ongoing care of His creation. Acts 14:17 makes clear that God testifies to Himself by providing rain, crops and seasons, enabling people to grow food and enjoy a reasonable standard of living. Again, modern science has made God’s providence all the more clear. A good example of this is the Carbon Cycle, which is essential for life, and shows all the hallmarks of design.4
General Revelation is also mediated through conscience. According to the Apostle Paul, a basic knowledge of right and wrong is universal, because the requirements of God’s laws are written on people’s hearts (Rom. 2:14,15). Only by wilfully suppressing this knowledge is the sense of conscience lost (Rom. 1:18).
God’s revelation of Himself through the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ is known as Special Revelation. Through this, we learn of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, His love and holiness, His unwavering commitment to judge sin, and His plan of salvation for those who will receive it. We gain access to His word and His wisdom, to guide us in our daily lives (2 Tim. 3:16,17), and receive God’s great and precious promises, that we “may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4).
God is sometimes said to have revealed himself in two books: the book of nature (General Revelation) and the book of Scripture (Special Revelation). Sometimes it is even said (for example, by leading ‘progressive creationist’ Dr Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe) that Genesis to Revelation comprise the first 66 books of the Bible and ‘nature’ the 67th book. However, this is not anywhere stated in Scripture and has often resulted in the study of nature (through science) elevating General Revelation to the same level as Special Revelation. Acceptance of this idea has led to the Bible, and particularly Genesis, being reinterpreted to fit in with the latest scientific ideas. This is unsupportable for many reasons. For example, if this were correct, then only those with knowledge of modern science could rightly interpret the Bible. Also, since scientific ideas are constantly changing, then the Bible’s message would be constantly changing, from century to century.
Moreover, almost all ‘modern science’ is based on the arbitrary assumption that nothing exists apart from matter. Such thinking will inevitably lead to conclusions, in matters of origins and history, which contradict the Bible. Many modern ‘scientists’ believe that everything can and must be explained by natural processes. Acts of God are therefore excluded from the start. Even the understanding of man is governed by this paradigm. According to Professor Anthony Cashmore, for example, evolutionary science has allegedly shown that people are not responsible for their actions.5
Nature is not the 67th book of the Bible, but a signpost pointing to the existence and moral character of the Creator. The ‘book of nature’ should be studied and understood in the light of the ‘book of Scripture’, not the other way round.
Beginning with Adam and Eve, God revealed something of Himself by making them in His image (Gen. 1:27). As they came to understand themselves, they learnt about God and His nature. Like God, they could love one another, were rational and creative, and were moral. As God rejoiced in them, they could rejoice in Him. Moreover, God had demonstrated a special affection and love for them by planting a beautiful garden for them to enjoy (Gen. 2:8,9) and would visit them during the cool of the day to share fellowship (Gen. 3:8). They inhabited a perfect world, characterised by peace and harmony. Everything was beautiful and good, and made plain the wise and holy nature of their Creator (Gen. 1:31).6
Despite all of this, and representing the whole of the human race, Adam and Eve rejected God and embraced evil. In their folly, they chose to believe the word of the serpent, who characterised God as deceitful and mean (Gen. 3:6-7). They were judged for their sin: Eve would give birth to children in pain and would be ruled over by her husband; Adam would procure food from the ground through toil and hard work; both of them would eventually die (Gen. 3:16-20). But alongside judgement came mercy and more revelation, this time concerning God’s plan of salvation. In order to cover their shame, God killed one or more animals, no doubt with the shedding of blood, and clothed them with skins. He thus pointed forward to the shedding of the blood of His Son, who would be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, and whose righteousness would one day clothe those He would redeem. The need for the shedding of blood in order to sanctify offerings made to God7 was reinforced when God accepted Abel’s offering of animal fat, but rejected Cain’s offering of plants (Gen. 4:3-6).
Although God had not given Adam and Eve a list of commandments (Rom. 5:12-14), the concepts of sin and righteousness were clear to them (Gen. 4:6-14). Despite this, within ten generations, the world had become filled with wickedness. With the exception of just eight people, every inclination of the thoughts of men’s hearts had become only evil all the time (Gen. 6:5). Again, God judged mankind and destroyed them in a great flood (Gen. 6, 7); but, again, He also revealed himself as a saviour, as he preserved Noah and his family in the Ark.
Despite Noah and his family’s personal experience of salvation, few of his descendants saw fit to retain the knowledge of God. Within a short time, a national rebellion against God took place, when people rejected God’s purposes for them and, instead, sought to exalt themselves by building a city and a tower (Gen. 11:1-4). Again God acted in judgement, confusing their language and scattering them over the face of the Earth (Gen. 11:5-9); but again, He also acted in mercy, calling Abraham, from whom He would produce a special people, through whom He would reveal more of Himself and His plan of salvation (Gal. 3:6-14), and through whom the Saviour would be born.
From Abraham to Christ, God spoke in many ways: through the ceremonial law, which continually required blood sacrifices; through the annual Passover, where an unblemished lamb had to be slain; through the Psalms; and through the Prophets. Finally, God revealed himself in the person of His Son. Appearing as a man, Jesus perfectly represented God (Heb. 1:3). “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” He declared (John 14:9).
Revelation, in Judeo-Christian theology, is God’s communication to man of divine truth, particularly with respect to the manifestation of Himself, His nature and His will.
General Revelation leads to a universal sense of God, deep within the consciousness of our being. It makes clear that God exists, and produces in us an understanding of right and wrong. Along with this, we are also given a sense of eternity (Eccl. 3:11) . General Revelation is possessed by all, including those who have never had access to the Scriptures and have no knowledge of God’s plan of salvation. It is made known, for example, through creation (Ps. 19:1-4), providence (Acts 14:17) and conscience (Rom. 2:14,15). General Revelation is sometimes also referred to as Natural Revelation. See also Rom 1:18-20.
Special Revelation leads to a fuller understanding of God, His nature, laws and purposes, and, particularly, His plan of salvation. It comes through hearing the Gospel, reading the Scriptures and, supremely, through knowledge of His Son, Jesus Christ. Special Revelation is sometimes also referred to as Supernatural Revelation. See also Heb. 1:3, John 1:17,18 and John 14:6-21.
General Revelation should be subservient to Special Revelation. This is because General Revelation has been marred by sin and is clarified and only made complete by Special Revelation. While the world, as originally created, perfectly displayed the character of God, now, because of His judgement upon sin, suffering and death cloud our appreciation of His goodness and mercy. In contrast, God’s Special Revelation, through the Bible, is perfect (Ps. 19:7) and inerrant (John 10:35 and Luke 16:17). Man’s thoughts about God and His creation, derived from observations of nature, are fallible and subject to distortion due to sin (Jer. 17:9 and Rom. 1:18); the Bible is the Word of God and God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and is therefore completely reliable.